Monday 16 September 2019

Emily Hourican: 'He was better than a saint... a man with heart and soul'

Fr Tony Coote, who died last Wednesday, was a man blessed in his personality, his friends and his faith, writes Emily Hourican

Fr Tony Coote and his brothers David, Kieran and Pat, wrap up the Walk While You Can sponsored walk. Photo: Fr Tom Hayes
Fr Tony Coote and his brothers David, Kieran and Pat, wrap up the Walk While You Can sponsored walk. Photo: Fr Tom Hayes

Emily Hourican

When I heard, by chance, Fr Tony Coote on The Ryan Tubridy Show in April 2018, I knew who he was: my local parish priest. He had baptised two of my three children, and always seemed a good person, a good priest, who gave mercifully short sermons at the 11am family mass we sometimes attended. Really, that was it.

It was enough to keep me listening, though, and over the next 20 minutes, something happened. I listened as Tony talked about his childhood - the death of his baby brother Alan, his parents' separation, a degree of poverty that, while not at all uncommon at the time, meant that the family was sometimes given food hampers by a local priest, who Tony said ''drank a lot, but had a kind and compassionate heart''. I listened as he described going for a hospital check-up after a couple of unexplained falls, and being told he had motor neurone disease.

I didn't really know what MND was, but I understood it was incurable and involved progressive loss of muscle function. Loss of power to limbs, loss of control over actions, loss of speech. But Tony was cheerful.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

It seemed, he told Tubridy, that the disease progression might be slow. A matter of years.

It wasn't. It was rapid. A matter of months; just 18 months all told, from diagnosis to his death last Wednesday. In fact, there was noticeable loss of power and capacity within weeks. But that didn't stop Tony from being cheerful and resolute.

Tony did more in the 18 months of life left to him than many of us do in a decade. He had form in doing - this modest man, uninterested in achievement except inasmuch as the achieving helped others - had already set up an overseas volunteer programme during his time as chaplain in UCD, and a suicide prevention programme, Please Talk, that is now in every third-level college in the country. ''Christians who truly live their faith are never bystanders,'' he said.

I didn't know any of that at first. I just knew that Tony planned to raise money for MND research. He had set himself what sounded to me like the impossible task of raising €250,000.

''He'll never get that,'' I thought and then, struck by his story, his lack of self-pity, ''I'd better try and help.''

With friends, I organised a local walk, around the local park. The day came. It poured rain. Bucketed. ''No one will come,'' I said. We reached the park half an hour before the allotted time, to set up.

Already there, standing in the rain, were a large group of people, mainly older men and women, under umbrellas and huddled in waterproofs. They pushed soaking notes into our buckets - €10s, €20s, €50s - and more and more of them kept coming. We made more than €11,000 in an hour.

I began to understand what was happening around me: A spontaneous outpouring of love for a man who seemed to have a strong personal connection with every one of his parishioners. They loved him, because he brought something to their lives: joy, optimism, the true charity that comes from a lack of distance between the idea of ''you'' and the idea of ''me''.

Tony organised a much bigger walk, the length of Ireland, from Letterkenny to Ballydehob (made into a beautiful documentary for RTE by Roger Childs, Walking The Walk). The walk took a month - and everywhere Tony went, every town he stopped in, people came out to meet and support him.

At the time of his death, he had raised more than €750,000. Within the parish, money came from many sources: bake sales, book sales, concerts, coffee mornings. All those events were as remarkable for the community bonds they fostered and strengthened, as for the money raised. It was as if a whole neighbourhood was infused with the spirit of one man, and wanted to do things better: in trying to honour him, we all wanted to live a little better, care for each other a little better.

Some months after I heard Tony on the radio, I got a call from a friend of his to say he wanted to write a book and would I help him.

Of course I would. We met in November, nine months after his diagnosis, and Tony talked about the book he wanted to write - a mix of his life story and the story of his faith.

He was already noticeably weaker than when I had last seen him, in a wheelchair, and with a full-time nurse, Adam Gaine, living with him. I said that I would help in any way I could.

Honestly, I didn't think he'd do it. Writing books, while not coal mining, is hard work. It's extra hard work when you cannot use your hands to type.

But Tony kept at it, working with Adam, who typed as Tony talked, and they began sending me chapters. Sometimes there would be a pause, and I would wonder was the flow of work finished, but Tony would not give up.

In that remarkable book, Live While You Can, Tony wrote about his illness, and his faith, and how the one affected the other.

''Why should I not bear some of the suffering that is in the world today?'' he asked, and then: ''I don't see God punishing me in any way. Through my illness, I have seen the love of God in the kindness and care of so many.''

He also wrote about his fears - not of death, but of silence. The fear of losing his voice, the ''greatest challenge'', he called it. And he did.

Tony's voice lasted just long enough for him to get the book done, and then it went, leaving him unable to communicate easily with those around him.

At the launch for Live While You Can - at which nearly 1,000 people turned up to the church of St Therese - his words were relayed through a digital communication system. It was magical, and heartbreaking.

Tony was 55 when he died, last Wednesday, leaving his brothers David, Kieran and Pat and his mother Patricia, ''the hero of our family'', to whom Live While You Can is dedicated. He died on the day before the children of the local school of which he was chaplain were due to go back.

Those children, and we their parents, walk past Tony's house every day on our way up and down from school. He used to say how much he liked listening to the sounds of childish chatter and for me, there was something quietly precious in knowing he heard them.

I know there is a formal process for canonising people - the Church has a system for sainthood, as they do for everything. I also know that many of the people who knew Tony won't bother with any of that. He is already, in their minds, a saint. And I know exactly what they mean.

But for me, in the end, he was maybe better than a saint - he was a man, a human being, a fully-realised person with heart and soul and a love of life, of friends, red wine, fun. He had wit and irreverence, rare energy and determination, an ability to infuse others with his ideas and see those ideas through to fruition. He had compassion and a great deal of courage (I never heard him complain even once about his afflictions, or indeed mention his illness much, beyond the simple fact of its existence and the practical implications of its relentless advance).

He talked about what he could do, not what he couldn't do. He bore the many frustrations and indignities of his condition with dignity.

He was blessed in his personality, his ability to make friends and inspire action in others. He was blessed in his faith. And we were blessed to know him.

I know Tony believed that he was going to better - ''I feel now that I am aboard a fast train with only one stop,'' he wrote. ''I'm not in a mad hurry to disembark. I'm like everyone else; I only know this world and this life, but I see no meaning in this life ending in a grave. When the train stops, I will step on to that platform with hope and no fear.''

May the God in whom he trusted be there to meet him.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss